An Illinois police union on Wednesday ousted from its membership an officer facing criminal charges for exposing a squad car video that showed his fellow officers slapping and cursing a man dying of a drug overdose.
The case of Sgt. Javier Esqueda, a 27-year veteran of the Joliet Police Department, was featured in September as the first installment of the USA TODAY series “Behind the Blue Wall,” an investigation involving more than 300 cases of police officers over the past decade who have spoken out against alleged misconduct in their departments.
A subsequent story published this week outlined patterns of retaliation against such officers in departments large and small across the country, highlighting how some within law enforcement use internal affairs investigations and other forms of retaliation and intimidation to punish those who break the code of silence.
Esqueda told USA TODAY that he’s become a pariah among his coworkers since July 2020, when he shared with a television reporter footage from January of that year showing how officers treated a handcuffed Black man in medical distress. Officers slapped Eric Lurry, restricted his airway and shoved a baton in his mouth hours before his death. Esqueda faces up to 20 years in prison after department officials opened a criminal investigation into his actions and prosecutors charged him with four counts of official misconduct.
Members of the Joliet Police Officer’s Association on Wednesday voted 35-1 to expel Esqueda, a move first reported by The Herald-Ledger newspaper in Joliet. In a letter informing him of the impending vote last month, union leaders described his conduct as “reprehensible.” The letter did not offer specifics on what actions from Esqueda prompted the vote.
But Esqueda on Thursday said he believes the move is yet another act of retaliation from Joliet’s police leadership, who since the USA TODAY story have found themselves under an Illinois Attorney General’s office investigation and a department shakeup that led the city manager last month to fire Chief Dawn Malec.
“They all wanted me charged, they all want me gone, and by doing this, it’s self-gratification for them,” Esqueda said of the union’s vote. “And after everything that’s happened, do I really want to be associated with them?”
Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, told USA TODAY on Thursday that he isn’t surprised Esqueda’s peers moved to dismiss him from the union even against the backdrop of national news coverage and a state investigation.
“In a lot of instances they know these actions are wrong, but they’re also aware that once there’s transparency in these cases there’s a concern of how it’ll look in the light of day,” he said.
Joliet Police Sgt. Patrick Cardwell, president of the supervisor’s union, declined to comment to USA TODAY on Thursday when reached by phone.
Esqueda said it was Cardwell who hand-delivered him a letter informing him of the vote several weeks ago.
“The Executive Board finds cause that you engaged in conduct that is detrimental to the orderly operation of the Association, and your conduct is deemed so reprehensible that removal from membership is appropriate,” Cardwell wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 19.
The decision comes nearly two months into Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s investigation into Joliet’s Police Department to determine whether officers there have a pattern of committing civil rights violations.
Raoul has said that his office could force Joliet’s police department to make sweeping changes if systemic problems are found. But he made clear his office has no jurisdiction to take any specific actions regarding the death of Lurry, who a medical examiner ruled died of a drug overdose hours after his encounter with police.
According to additional recordings Joliet police released after Esqueda leaked a portion of the squad car video, officers who arrested Lurry drove him back to the police station instead of to a hospital, even after they believed he swallowed drugs to prevent police from finding them.
Prosecutors cleared the officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing after a multiagency police task force investigated Lurry’s death. Lurry’s widow, Nicole Lurry, has since filed a wrongful death suit against the city and the officers involved in the confrontation with her husband.
One of the officers, a sergeant who is a member of the union that expelled Esqueda this week, told investigators that he thought Lurry was feigning sickness when he appeared to lose consciousness in the back of the squad car. Investigators allowed the sergeant to review the squad car footage before speaking with him.
The officers involved all received minor punishments at the end of the department’s internal investigation into the Lurry incident. The discipline included a six-day suspension of an officer who turned off the sound to the recording in the moments after the sergeant slapped Lurry, 37, and called him a “bitch.”
Malec scheduled discipline hearings for Esqueda at least twice in the early fall to announce what his punishment would be for leaking the video, which department leaders had already shown to a group of local pastors, Lurry’s family and a few local reporters in the days before Esqueda stepped forward.
Malec declined to comment to USA TODAY in September about any specific actions she planned to take against Esqueda, but Esqueda said he believed she was planning to fire him. Esqueda had been on administrative leave since before his October 2020 arrest but was recently assigned to a desk job at city hall.
A day after Esqueda received a notice last month that Malec was again scheduling a discipline hearing for him, Joliet City Manager Jim Capparelli fired Malec and appointed an interim chief. He later rescinded the firing and demoted her, but the saga continues to play out in front of the city council and other city leadership.
Capparelli did not respond to a call for comment Thursday, but in a previous interview with USA TODAY he pointed out that he was not the city manager at the time former police Chief Alan Roechner launched the criminal investigation into Esqueda. Had he been in charge, he said “things would have gone a different way.”
Among his criminal charges, Esqueda is facing claims that he illegally used his department-issued laptop to access video of the Lurry incident. Esqueda said he watched the video after he logged in and saw that it was available for him to view, which typically indicates that an investigation had been closed. He added that he’d heard about the video and was concerned because one of his trainees was involved in the arrest.
No trial date has been set.
Roechner told USA Today this summer that he does not consider Esqueda a whistleblower and that he expected new evidence to come out at his trial. Esqueda’s coworkers told investigators that he planned to use the video as a “trump card” to avoid discipline in an unrelated incident. In that case, department officials ruled that Esqueda had failed to supervise another officer who got into a scuffle with a woman at a candlelight vigil.
Esqueda was one of 30 police officers who signed a letter to congress this summer urging lawmakers to pass protections for police whistleblowers.
This summer, he also became the first recipient of a national award from The Lamplighter Project, a support and advocacy group for police whistleblowers. The organization’s name came from a term coined by Francesco Serpico, the NYPD Detective who exposed widespread corruption within the department in the 1970s and was memorialized in a Hollywood movie bearing his name.
Daphne Duret is a reporter on USA TODAY’s investigative team and a 2021-22 Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan. Contact Daphne at [email protected], @dd_writes, by signal at 772-486-5562.
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